Director: Jonathon Hensleigh
Cast: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Samantha Mathis, Rebecca Romijin, Will Patton, Ben Foster, Laura Harring
Plot: Retired FBI agent, Frank Castle (Jane) is ambushed by mobsters and witnesses his whole family being slaughtered. He vows for vengeance and becomes the Punisher.
The Punisher is a tricky Marvel character to get right, especially back in 2004, when Marvel movies had a nasty habit of conforming to a generic template. The Punisher is not a hero; he is a vigilante. His quest for justice is fuelled purely by his anger and mental instability. He goes to bloody extremes to beat his enemies and he always, always kills them, when he has caught up with them. While in the comic book universe, he is a refreshing change of pace, he could be kryptonite for the Marvel movie trend.
In all honesty, the Punisher movie, for the most part, hits all of its targets. It produces a Marvel movie, so unlike anything we have seen before, newcomers to the character might need gentle reminding throughout the viewing that they are watching someone from the same universe as the colourfully family-friendly Spiderman. It feels like a gritty 80s action movie, but with the cheese factor cut to a bare minimum. We are essentially told the story of an ex-FBI agent, who gets hit by an unspeakable tragedy, sending him on a vendetta to kill the mob boss, who wronged him. We are then treated to an one-man army, stripping apart John Travolta’s empire piece by piece, thwarting him at every turn. Although the movie does indulge in its fair share of Thomas Jane’s anti-hero taking on rooms full of enemies, the action is grounded in logic. Iti s quite fun, trying to figure out what the Punisher is up to, before the reveal, as he goes apart laying his traps and schemes. While this is nothing like the beat-em-up Spiderman trilogy, movie-goers wanting a Friday night actioner will be more than happy with this film. Especially the mid-movie punch-up between Punisher and a bulky Russian assassin.
It does feel a little let down by its age. 2004 isn’t too good a year for the average film, and The Punisher falls into that category. There is a sense that it is trying to be something different from the norm, trying to escape the cheese factor of movies from the last two decades (Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher is probably the most suitable comparaison). However, I felt that the director was trying to conform to this rigid idea of cinema, meaning that the Punisher is marginally trapped in the conventions of the decade. The most obvious example of this is the mass murder that sets Frank Castle off on his killing spree. We understand that it is brutal and it is shocking in its own way, but there was an inner part of me that wanted to see this sequence in a 2010 movie. The murder of the women and kids was done tastefully, too tastefully. If the movie wanted to go a little more violent and hard-hitting, we would have been a little more emphatic with Castle went he veers into his most psychotic. A gruesome torture scene also cuts away too much, lacking a little finesse with the editing. It is not as if the film isn’t afraid to be violent, it is an 18 rating after all, but when the gorier scenes kick in, the victims are always nasty people, so we get a feeling of ‘justice has been served’ rather than a sense of OMG. Again, these are all understandable flaws, but it is one of the things that holds the Punisher back from being too memorable.
The only other problem I had here was that the story doesn’t have too many twists and turns. All of the surprises come from the sub-plots, especially between the villains, as the empire begins to unravel. I had fun watching John Travolta go from the hardest man around to the falling empire, struggling to keep his sanity together. He also has some fun side villians to play off with. His wife is a cold-hearted bitch and I wished the movie played more on the idea that she could be arguably the true villain of the movie. Then there is his henchman, who is a nasty piece of work, but is cool enough for the audience to like him. In some ways, the Punisher almost turns into a little brother of the 70s crime epics, like Scarface, and is only brought back into revenge thriller when the Punisher shows up. While the climax is satisfying, it feels a little by-the-numbers, and I wished there was one last shock to just make the Punisher feel more recommendable.
Final Verdict: If this was released in 2014, it could have embellished a few more of its ideas, but sadly, as it stands, the Punisher is a good, yet moderately forgettable, actioner.